A failed Soviet spacecraft from the 1970s, one initially sent to explore Venus, may crash-land into Earth some time this year, Space.com is reporting. Whether the craft will fall harmlessly into an unpopulated area or put actual human lives at risk — or whether it will simply burn up in the atmosphere — is unclear.
These days exploring Mars is all the rage, but back in the 1970s the Soviets wanted to be the first to put a spacecraft on another planet — and they went for Venus. And indeed, they succeeded. On December 15, 1970, the unmanned Venera 7 became the first spacecraft to land on another planet. The craft sent back data and images before melting in the searing Venusian heat.
They tried again a couple of years later, sending up a craft known as Cosmos 482. Cosmos 482 was joined by a sister spacecraft designed to aid the mission. Unfortunately for the Soviets, Cosmos 482 suffered failures on the way up. Rather than making it to Venus, it got trapped in Earth’s orbit, where it’s remained for nearly five decades.
However, Cosmos 482’s time is coming to an end. All spacecraft in Earth orbit eventually succumb to Earth’s gravity, and get pulled back home. Most of the time, they burn up in the atmosphere.
Cosmos 482 may well be one of those vessels that survives re-entry and hits the surface. In fact, satellite watcher Thomas Dorman is almost certain of it. He even jokes that it may still retain some functionality and surprise the Russians, NASA, and everyone else who is watching.
“Yes, the descent craft will survive a re-entry with no problems. It would be funny if it was spotted coming down and the parachute has deployed… but I am sure the batteries to fire the pyrotechnics to release the parachute have died long ago!”
If the craft does survive re-entry, as Dorman predicts, math alone reveals that the odds of it landing in a populated area are slim. Nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, so the odds are quite good that the defunct vessel will land in the ocean. And even if it crashes into land, it could very well land in a relatively or completely unpopulated area.
That’s not to say that Earthlings are 100 percent safe from falling space junk. Indeed, the space community has warned us to be on the lookout in the past as regards falling space debris. Back in the ’70s, for example, the dead American orbiting station Skylab returned to Earth — and there were legitimate concerns about parts of it making landfall. Those fears did not prove unfounded, according to History.com. Most of the craft landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean, but a few chunks did land on the ground in western Australia. No humans were harmed, however.
Last year, China’s Tiangong-1 satellite made a fiery re-entry towards Earth. Fears arose that chunks of it may survive the fall, and may threaten humans. Fortunately, as The Guardian reported at the time, what survived of the craft during re-entry landed harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean.